Thursday, April 30, 2009

Thoughts as I Crawl out from the Grading Pile

Another semester's research essays have been drafted, revised, and graded. I haven’t run a marathon, but I imagine the months of preparing and then the grueling mile after mile with “just five more” miles than seems possible might be a physical facsimile to the mental task of grading multiple class sections of six to eight page research essays. It feels good to be on this side of the finish line!

I’ve shared my trusty research essay grading tool before, but my students remarked that they found my comments especially helpful this semester, so I’ve been thinking about the evolution of my written feedback to students on how to improve their writing. In college, we studied Peter Elbow, Donald Murray, and Nancy Atwell, and fifteen years later, I don’t remember which concepts and influences came from which person. I’ll credit all three of them with forming my dedication to revision. My own schooling did not model revision or teach the writing process. Some of us intuited it and used it either internally or privately; other students struggled.

At this point, my written feedback to students couches itself in the language of revision. While my grading charts and line markings might itemize things that are missing, the language of my end of essay feedback focuses on the next version of the essay (or the way the next assignment should be written). Instead of writing, as I did years ago, “You’ve lost points for writing with second person,” I write, “In your next draft, please avoid second person; use more specific nouns to strengthen your use of third person.” “Frequent comma splices distract from your content” has become “Better editing of your use of the comma will prevent the comma splice from diminishing the power of your prose.” I stopped writing things like, “Pervasive errors with your MLA make your use of research distracting instead of persuasive” and started writing things like “Once you fix your MLA, your integration of research will better support your argument.” I’m not saying this is an earth shattering technique; I think it’s a focus, a perspective, to which students respond, especially touchy, self-esteem-full millennial students. I use the feedback to describe the changes needed to create the next, better, more successful product. For discouraged students, it helps them see the next step. For students lacking editorial judgment, it helps them identify the missing elements that can still be added. It keeps the focus on moving forward.

In recent years (probably since becoming a parent), I’ve noticed my feedback getting peppered with a more parental tone. I write things like, “I’m confident you can create a stronger vehicle for your ideas,” which seems to me an English teacher variation of “Your father and I know you can do better.” I use more phrases like “I enjoyed…, but I wish…” “In the future, I look forward to seeing…” I don’t know when exactly I made this shift, but it seems to be helping. Mostly, I teach discouraged or disinterested writers. I think by using my feedback to imagine a better product for their writing, I am establishing the idea for the first time in their minds. (Gosh, that’s a little depressing, but I’m thinking it may be true…) I took driving lessons from the gym teacher at my high school, and he told me, “The car goes where you’re looking.” I’ve always thought of that as a powerful metaphor for most anything in life. The essay goes where the writer imagines it. Let’s face it--many developing writers don’t give their essays’ horizons much imagining. By sketching a more powerful written product out in my feedback, I’ve nudged more writers towards improvement than when I itemized the troubles within the existing product. Like the influences of wind or surf upon a rock, my revision minded feedback might make small, incremental changes in the way students see their own writing over time. However, at this point in the semester, I’m just glad I can see any change!

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

1 comment:

Mark Pennington said...

I think that "forward-thinking" in my comments on student papers is what I have been lacking. I found a great article containing canned comments that can be placed into the "Replace" function of Microsoft word and then pasted into bubble comments. I'm going to change the comments to focus on how to improve for the next draft. They are very useful comments, however, and have helped me get through my stack much more quickly. The article is at">